Review: "enigma n" and "Infoanimism" by Jim Andrews

Bill Marsh

One of the difficulties of constructing a poetics of web-based writing is understanding the time in which this work gets done. I mean here our current time of rapid innovation and then, as its obvious corollary, of rapid displacement as the tools unique to this brand of writing -- HTML scripting and its WYSIWYG editors, JavaScript, image animation tools, "shock" applications, etc. -- multiply, adapt and replace themselves with ever-increasing frequency. What might help define this poetics, however, is a 'squaring off' in the face of its many traditions and informants, even while these may be many and rarely agreed upon among current practitioners. Positioning recent work in web arts in relation to its forebears -- particularly film, television broadcast, the kinetic art and concrete poetry movements of the 50's and 60's, as well as the material poetics of Language writing and post-structuralist linguistics -- would go far to contextualize recent projects without either undermining or over-stating its debts to hi-tech innovations. Likewise, a poetics of web writing suffers little when the tricks of this particular trade are brought to the surface and its devices carefully defined. This burgeoning poetics becomes especially inviting when working artists take it upon themselves to bare their secrets in an effort not only to authenticate their work, which in many cases needs doing, but also to clarify for themselves and others the challenges of working in this environment.

Jim Andrews' companion pieces Enigma n and Infoanimism suggest at least two ways in which a web poetics can develop -- first, in their implied commitment to discussing technical process in relation to the finished work, and secondly in the advantageous use the artist makes of the web to offer in conjunction both the work and its explication. It seems to me that a poetics of online writing should share a common wall with its poetry, where in other venues the two often take up residence in different houses (literally) or even on different blocks. As George Landow argues, "this merging of creative and discursive modes simply happens in hypertext." Of course, it happens in plain text too, but clearly the fact that "creative" online writing and its critique can occupy the same space suggests opportunities for a 'paired' discourse by which critical and creative endeavors emerge in clearer relation to each other.

"enigma n" does what a good portion of text-based web poetry does: it explores the language game using the latest scripting tools in the more fluid environment of hypertext. Elaborating on an anagrammic reshuffling of letters in the word "meaning," Andrews uses Dynamic HTML to aggravate the static letter-objects ("m-e-a-n-i-n-g") encountered when we access the piece [viewed for this reading in Internet Explorer 4.0]. The user has three options initially: "Prod," "Stir," and "Tame." When selected, each yields a different manipulation of the letters; in these early events the letters are nudged on click into asynchronous orbits around an uncertain center. After all three options have been selected in any order, the option to "Spell" becomes available -- if selected, the letters come back to rest at the center of the screen. But it's a false ending, since cycling through any of the initial options eventually introduces further options: "0/1," which freezes the action at any given point; "Colour" and "Discombobulate" which render alterations in color schemes and font sizes respectively; "Speed," which yields a pop-up menu to the left of the screen with a series of selections either slowing or quickening the revolutions of letter-objects; and finally, "About" and "Runaway", the latter of which links out to one installment of the peripherally engaging ADVEXP (Ted Warnell), the former taking us one step out of the action to a kind of postscript, which reads as follows:

Enigma n

Underneath the postscript we find a link to "Infoanimism," the author's commentary on this and a related piece ("Seattle Drift"), both using DHTML.

What I find initially appealing in Andrews' piece is something akin to what Michael Joyce has referred to as surfaces "giving ways" to other surfaces. The user engages a string of options, each of which calls up a specific response. Once all options have been made available, the text can be manipulated via any number of selections and thereby accrues into something much larger than the sum of these options. Andrews offers here what Michael Joyce elsewhere has called not word processing but "text processing" -- making text variations "available to readers along a presentational path predetermined by the writer and selected or influenced by the reader." Joyce has in mind the linking mechanisms of hypertext authoring tools like Storyspace, but the terms apply here as well in that the writer's predeterminations work in concert with reader selections (in this case, the dynamism of the letter-objects wrought in DHTML in conjunction with user selections of "Prod," "Discombobulate," etc.).

But the poem "gives ways" in other ways as well. Underneath the ostensible surface of the work, if the user has the time or inclination to investigate, we find in the source code a document which -- given the pun registered in its title (meaning as "enigma") -- adds another element to the installation that similarly multiplies its effects. Two short samplings:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">

/*Each animated letter is of this style. Each letter is an object. accesses the radius, etc.*/
.j {font-size:40;

and further down...

// When doit=false, enigma n stops.
var doit= false;
// The delay speed in milliseconds between rethinkings.
var speed=15;
// Whether or not letters will be colored on rethink.
var colorletters=false;

Toward the end of this long block of source code, the artist clues us in: "If you're reading this, I don't know really why. You could be reading it to see how the piece was done so you can do dhtml yourself or you are looking for the true meaning of the piece or you're a habitual source viewer or...  I'm not sure whether to talk about the mechanics of the piece here or not. Naw, that's technique, and technique is hard won but anybody can do it." Quite obviously, "reading this" is one intended option among several in the work's several layers. To read the source code as well as the surface text is to engage one's role as "text processor," following paths and registering the details by which we can influence the text's potential outcomes. The existence of a "source" code in itself, and in particular the insertion here of a writerly epilogue, also of course implies the controlling metaphor of the poem: "meaning" must be looked for (if not necessarily found) in the hidden or 'neath' regions (to use Andrew's term) of the composition, either by making actual the potential kineticism of the given letter-objects (clicking options) or by investigating the script proffered underneath the surface text. The "rethinkings" by which computer scripts instantiate subtle variations in the 'bove' text (my term) complement the thinkings and rethinkings that a poem like this invites of its user.

Andrews' linked essay Infoanimism defers to the reader for any sense of what all of this "means" in the conventional sense, but the short essay -- by virtue of its direct linkage to "enigma n" -- nonetheless underscores the necessarily close relationship between what might elsewhere be polarized as 'aesthetic' and 'technical' concerns in web design. Here, Andrews describes DHTML as a (sub)language that "turns documents into programs" and invites the user to "reconceptualize the document as a collection of objects with properties that can change as the reader reads." Andrews goes on to grant that users familiar with HTML (hypertext mark-up language) are accustomed to the notion that what we see directly on the screen is in fact a computer rendering of strings of binary code. If binary code represents the 'deep' layer of language in the realm of computer functionality, then HTML (and its Dynamic version) presents itself as a meta-language writing the 'neath' text of ones and zeros. Likewise, the visual experience of "enigma n" writes another level of language in the users' (writer's and reader's) engagement with the letter-objects described and manipulated.

The aesthetics of this textual layering -- what we might call an aesthetics of vertical intertextuality -- finds its bearing in the several experiments of Modernist and Postmodernist poetry. Andrews rightly acknowledges this evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) status of web-based poetics via a somewhat obscure but relevant reference to Auden, who as Andrews paraphrases said that "he would give less chance of success to a young writer who said he had something to say than he would to a writer who said that he liked to watch the way words hang around together." Visual-kinetic poetries like "enigma n" stand their best chance in the smart appropriation of existing design tools in conjunction with a square understanding of 20th century experimental poetics. That "DHTML allows writers to make documents in which words hang around together" provides Andrews -- as well as any of us who might like to experience or "do dhtml [ourselves]" -- with at least one line of connection to the world of print-based poetries. It is necessary to find others.

Of larger importance to an emerging web poetics is the changing relationship between artist-writers and their media wrought by the emergence of code-based languages like HTML, DHTML, VRML, etc.. Andrews turns to this issue in his closing remarks:

What's a writer, then? All she ever was but also in the visual and neath textual languages. It's the neath textual languages that permit the synthesis of arts on the Web which is occurring and will go beyond synthesis of the arts to a synthesis of arts and science and perhaps, full circle, to a situation where we could say, as have the indigenous people of some cultures, 'we have no art, just life here, see, it's all life.' Infoanimism.

Andrews should be applauded for even considering 'synthesis' in an age obsessed with dissonance and the differentiation of minutae. But ambition of this kind might also benefit from a broader perspective -- as well as perhaps a certain degree of caution with regard to placing any faith in 'neath textual languages' as determinants of a new synthesis. Intermedial arts, as popularized by Dick Higgins and the Fluxus group, are just one example of an experimental strain (going back to Dadaism and Futurism as well) dedicated to a syncretized, if not synthesized, art. The several languages in which these artists have worked -- not just the natural languages that often divided them, but also the languages of sound and human vocalization, of mathematics, of aleatoric (more recently computer-generated) processes, of imagery, of ideographs and iconography -- perhaps these should be recognized justly as the low and high-level languages against which the newer languages of mark-up and coding invent and measure themselves. In other words, poetry -- most particularly here in it's visual-kinetic extensions -- can be regarded as the art of layered languages. A broad-based poetics should therefore incorporate the shared languages of computer scripting as one of its functioning layers.

In any event, a poetics of web-based writing must account for the levels of discourse implicit in 'neath' languages as demonstrated in both of Andrews' installations. Pairing the work with discussions of its techniques and methods is therefore a step in the right direction.

Bill Marsh's site

Originally published in Xenia.